The beginnings of higher education in America:
Higher education in America began with the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay. On
October 28, 1636, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts passed legislation founding the
first college in what would become America. A year passed before further action was taken, but
by the end of 1637, Cambridge had been chosen for the college, a committee of six magistrates
and six ministers had been appointed as the college’s Board of Overseers, and John Eaton had
been selected as the college’s master. Instruction began during the summer of 1838, probably in
July or August. And in September, a thirty-one-year-old Puritan settler named John Harvard
died of consumption, but not before dictating an oral will leaving half of his property and his
entire 400 volume library to the new college. In honor of his generous donation, the Great and
General Court of Massachusetts named the college in his honor on March 13, 1639. Thus began
Harvard and higher education in America.
As a result of their reverence for learning, the Puritans who settled in New England were
an unusually well educated group. In fact, in 1640 the ratio of university- educated men per
family was higher in New England (1 to every 40 families) than anywhere in England.
Incredibly, of the 113 university men in New England at the time, 71 lived in Massachusetts
The dual goals of Harvard—providing educated religious and secular leaders—is
reflected in the membership of the Board of Overseers—six ministers and six magistrates—as
well as in the charge President Dunster gave to new board members during the seventeenth
century: “You shall take care to advance in all learning, divine and humane [emphasis added],
each and every student who is or will be entrusted to your tutelage, according to their several
abilities; and especially to take care that their conduct and manners be honorable and without
blame” (Morison 1636a, 19). That colonial colleges were expected to produce statesmen as well
as clergymen is also illustrated by the opening line of Yale’s 1745 revised charter:i
Whereas, the said trustees, partners or undertakers, in pursuance of the aforesaid grant,
liberty and lycence, founded a Collegiate School at New Haven, known by the name of
Yale College, which has received the favourable benefactions of many liberal and piously
disposed persons, and under the blessing of Almighty God has trained up many worth
persons for the service of God in the state as well as the church. (Hofstader and Smith
Clearly, Yale, like Harvard, sought not only to transmit Christian values but also to prepare its
students as statesmen. Thus, from its outset, the American colonial college’s dual aims were
culture and citizenship. The curriculum came directly from the English universities and was
based upon the artes liberales (liberal arts) ideal. In order to truly comprehend the artes
liberales ideal, we must go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, we must examine
the origin and development of the university to understand the English universities that served as
models for the American colonial college.
1) When was the pedagogical century in ancient Greece and what important
educational shift occurred during this time?
2) Prior to the pedagogical century, Hellenic education focused on the concept of arête?
Briefly explain the concept and how it was transmitted from one generation to the
3) What two critical questions emerged during the pedagogical century that shaped the
debate on education?
4) What were the three main schools of thought that were taught during the
5) What does the ancient Greek concept of logos have to do with the artes liberals ideal
that informed higher education in colonial America?
6) Which side of the logos debate did the Romans choose?
7) Where did we get our terms liberal arts, grammar, and literature?
Integrated Portfolio Response:*
During the so-called “pedagogical century” extending from 350 to 450 BCE, the Greek
concept of education underwent a fundamental shift, which, as Kimball (1986) describes in
Orators and Philosophers, led to the rise of the artes liberales ideal. Previously, the Hellenic
concept of education had focused on the pursuit of arete (excellence or virtue). “Central to this
[the arete] program,” writes Kimball, “was the recitation of Homeric epic poetry, both to provide
technical instruction in language and, more importantly, to inculcate the knightly mores and
noble ethic of the culture” (16). By reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey, students learned both
language skills and the values of the Attic-Ionian aristocracy.
However, in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, the rise of democratic institutions, such as
the assembly of free citizens, together with the flowering of Hellenic culture caused the Greeks
to re-examine their views of education and culture (paideia). Two critical questions emerged:
(1) How should free (eleutherios) citizens best be educated to participate in governing the city-
state? and (2) How is culture best understood and transmitted?
The debate over the answers to these two questions resulted in three varied educational
programs. One school of thought, advocated by Gorgias, Protagorus, Prodicus, Hippias, among
others, took a very pragmatic approach to education, focusing on the skills involved in oratory.
They sought to teach a kind of political sophia (wisdom)—an arete especially suited for the
democratic Greek city-state where winning arguments determined legislative and judicial
decisions—the art of persuasion. However, because their approach was viewed as advocating
persuasion at the expense of truth, the Sophists, as they were known, were condemned by both
Plato and Isocrates, the leaders of the other two major schools of thought.ii
In addition to their opposition to the Sophists, Plato and Isocrates shared the belief that
the key to Greek culture and education was the Greek term logos. As Isocrates (436-338 BCE)
noted in Antidosis,
It was logos which enabled us to perfect almost everything we have achieved in the
way of civilization. For it was this which laid down the standards of right and wrong,
nobility and baseness, without which we should not be able to live together. It is
through [logos] that we convict bad men and praise good ones. By its aid we educate
the foolish and test the wise. . . . With the help of logos we dispute over doubtful
matters and investigate the unknown. If we sum up the character of this power, we
shall find that no significant thing is done anywhere without the power of logos, that
logos is the leader of all actions and thoughts and that those who make most use of it
are the wisest of all humanity. (qtd in Kimball 1986, 269)
However, the term logoswas inherently ambiguous, incorporating the meanings of both “reason”
and “speech.” Though both Plato and Isocrates agreed logos should be the focus of education,
they disagreed on what exactly logos denoted. As a result, the dispute over the proper meaning
of logos became the central issue in arguments between the two camps about cultural issues in
general, and education, in particular.
Advocates of what Kimball terms the philosopher tradition, such as Plato, believed
reason was the essence of logos and hence the arts of mathematics and syllogistic logic should be
the focus of education. Plato (427-346 BCE) argued that philosophy provided the ideal
education. In doing so, he distinguished between sophia (wisdom) and philosophia (the highest,
metaphysical truth). Like Socrates before him and Aristotle after him, Plato believed that
knowledge led directly to virtue. In Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s student Aristotle wrote that
contemplation “is the highest activity, intellect being the highest element in us, and its objects
are the highest objects of knowledge” (1177a) and thus is the surest path to happiness. The
philosopher tradition held that arete was obtained through the never-ending pursuit of
philosophia, and knowledge was acquired via dialectic or logic not rhetoric.
Advocates of the orator tradition, on the other hand, such as Isocrates, Cicero, and
Quintilian argued that “speech” was the essence of logos. Like the Sophists, the orator tradition
emphasized persuasion and rhetorical technique. They believed the arts of rhetoric and grammar
along with the skills required for speechmaking—composing, delivering, and analyzing—were
the proper focus for education. Unlike the Sophists, Isocrates tied rhetoric to the traditional
Homeric standards of virtue and noble character. The ideal orator, he argued, served as a role
model to others by embodying the noble virtues.
Just as he criticized the Sophists for their amoral approach to rhetoric, Isocrates
denigrated the philosopher tradition’s endless pursuit of truth as useless speculation. Instead, he
argued that the orator was the true philosopher seeing as the proof of philosophy is the ability “to
speak well and think right” (Norlin). For Plato and the philosopher school, on the other hand,
rhetoric and oratory were always suspect because their end was persuasion rather than truth.
Each school suspected the other of sophistry. Thus, Plato and the philosophers
complained the orators relied upon unexamined tradition rather than analysis, while Isocrates
argued that philosophers were caught up in pointless speculation that had no relevance in
For I think that such curiousities of thought are on a par with jugglers’ tricks which,
though they do not profit anyone, yet attract great crowds of the empty-minded, and I
hold that men who want to do some good in the world must banish utterly from their
interests all vain speculations and all activities which have no bearing on our lives.
(Norlin 1928, 269)
Over time, Plato grew less critical of rhetoric, acknowledging that there can be legitimate
rhetoric so long as it is used in the purpose of seeking truth.iii Later still, Aristotle stated,
“Rhetoric is an antistrophos [counterpart] to dialectic” (Kennedy 1991, 1354a). However, that is
not to say that either Plato or Aristotle viewed rhetoric as the equal to dialectic or were converted
to the orator ideal. Rhetoric might be a counterpart, but it was, in their view, a lesser
counterpart, one dealing with specific situations as opposed to universal truths.iv And both men
remained firmly committed to the philosophical ideal of the eternal search for the highest truth.
It is important to note that all three schools of thought—sophist, philosopher and orator—
were taught during pedagogical century. It is commonly thought that the classical curriculum
comes directly from the Greek curriculum. But the truth is that the Greeks never settled on a
normative curriculum. Though it can be argued that the subject matter of the so-called seven
liberal arts was invented by the Greeks, they had no such listing of arts, nor was there ever a
Greek “school” where a student might go to learn them. Instead, teachers traveled about and
taught individual subjects.
Our term “liberal arts” derives from the Latin artes liberales, whose first recorded usage
is found in Cicero’s De inventione 1.35 in the first century BCE. The Latin term liberales is a
translation of the Greek term “eleutherios.” For the Greeks, eleutherios implied two kinds of
freedom: (1) political freedom to participate in the Athenian democracy and (2) the freedom
afforded by wealth for leisure and study. The Roman term “liberalis” also implied both political
freedom and financial well-being.
We cannot be certain when a consensus was reached as to the septem artes liberales
(seven liberal arts)--Varro listed nine, Vitruvius eleven, Galen eight, Sextus Empiricus six, and
Cicero didn’t make a list. However, somewhere between the 1st century CE and the 5th, when
Martianus Capella (ca. 400 CE) originated the term in De nuptiis Philogiae et Mercurii (On the
Marriage of Philology and Mercury), a normative curriculum of seven liberal arts, three language
arts and four mathematical arts, was established.
According to Kimball (1986), grammar didn’t become a formal art until the second or
first century BCE; however, its roots go back to the fifth century BCE and the Greeks’ study of
language and literature. Grammar’s roots also extend to musical education in ancient Greek
poetry and thus was tied to ethics and history. In grammar classes, students not only studied the
structure of language but also a canon of epic and hymnic poetry along with its historia, the
context, allusions and mythical background associated with each text. Studied through late
adolescence, grammar was the first liberal art in a Roman education. Our term grammar comes
from the Greek term gramma for “letter.” Later, using littera, the Latin word for “letter,”
Quintilian translated grammar as litteratura from whence we get our term literature.
The Greeks and the Romans solidified the artes liberales ideal, established Greek and
Latin as the learned languages, and developed the seven liberal arts that formed the heart of the
classical curriculum. Although, the emphasis varied between the orator and philosopher poles in
various time periods, the artes liberales ideal informed the classical curriculum from the time of
Isocrates and Plato through the American colonial college.
Hofstader, Richard and Wilson Smith. 1961. American Higher Education: A Documentary
History. 2 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.
Kennedy, George A.,trans. 1991. Aristotle on Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse.
New York: Oxford UP.
Kimball, Bruce. 1995. Orators & Philosophers: A History of Liberal Education. New
York: College Entrance Examination Board.
Norlin, George, trans. 1928. Isocrates. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
1) I normally won’t give you this many questions.
2) I don’t expect an integrated portfolio response for the homework. You can simply
answer the questions.
Yale was founded and chartered in 1701.
See Plato, Gorgias 502-522; Isocrates, Against the Sophists 2-11, 19-20.
See Plato, Phaedrus, 259e-261a.
See Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 1357a-1357b.